Presented with all the natural charm and esprit de corps at its professional disposal, Stages puts on quite a show with its adorable production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005). Regardless of its disposable score, this little musical by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) grew into an international cult hit probably because of its smarmy wit and unalloyed joy of watching adults play children and the adult characters acting like kids.
Ah, the joys of adolescence. The six contestants battle all the usual suspects: raging hormones, the stigma of nerdiness, helicopter or absentee parents, the maw of competition, the pressure of failure, their dubious place in the world, their bursting personalities yet to be formed. But these weighty issues are handled with the lightest of touches that only the high gloss of Broadway can camouflage with such panache.
Pre-2005, Finn and Sheinkin were outliers too. Finn had created a buzz with his off-Broadway Falsettos, which would win him deserved Tonys for its book and score, and Sheinkin was a struggling librettist. Her Tony win for Putnam's book certainly elevated her status but she's yet to parlay that into subsequent success. Finn had modest success with Little Miss Sunshine (2011), but both of them have seemed to come in second place; respected but under appreciated. Like their own creations in the fictional Putnam County middle school gym, they're waved goodbye and given a juice box for participation.
But Putnam continues to shine on its world-wide run. There's no doubting its appeal and easygoing charm. It's deftly constructed, easy on the ears with its character-driven songs, and gently nudges the inner outsider in us all.
Stages' cast is well-nigh perfect with everybody giving their all. They're as natural as kids caught up in competition, one-upping each other, playing little psychological games, warped by their parents, or self-destructing all on their own. It's a pleasure to watch them – and hear them – belting out their anthems to pre-teen angst (innocent Leaf's “I'm Not That Smart” – Christopher Scurlock); pressure (Logainne's “Woe Is Me” – Reghan Scott); warfare advantage (Barfee's “Magic Foot” – Mark Ivy); self awareness (Olive's “My Friend, the Dictionary” – Anna Maria); regal self assurance (Marcy's “I Speak Six Languages” – Amber Gray); and budding sex (Chip's peaen to his wayward erection “Chip's Lament” – John Ryan Del Bosque).
The actual adults get their moments: emcee and former spelling champ Rona Peretti with “My Favorite Moment” or doubling as Olive's missing mother off on an ashram in “The I Love You Song” – Courtney Markowitz); harried score keeper Vice Principal Panch in “The Rules” and “Spelling Montage” – Steve Irish); and referee Mitch in “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” – Camryn Nunley). Mitch also makes a delightful cameo appearance as Jesus to give counsel to conflicted Marcy.
To liven up the action, four audience members have been chosen to be contestants and match their spelling wits with the pros. It's great fun, just like the show. Stefan D. Azizi's gym set with wood basketball floor and net is nostalgic, Kristie Chiyere Osi's eclectic costumes reek of dubious teen fashion choices, and Steven Jones' musical direction, a bit overpowering, has spirit and heft.
Director and choreographer Mitchell Greco shows all his love for this show in sprightly movement and tongue-in-cheek attitude. (On a side note, the original off-Broadway production and its relocated Broadway version was choreographed by TUTS' artistic director Dan Knechtes. He received a Tony nomination for his seamless work. Greco wisely follows his lead in this homage.)
If you want a diverting, fun time at the theater, don't pass this by. The musical chops on display are first rate, and you might even learn to spell capybara, vug, or chimerical. Please use them in a sentence. The show is a-d-o-r-a-b-l-e!
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through November 14 at 7:30p.m.Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Stages, 800 Rosine. Proof of COVID vaccination or negative COVID-19 test is required. Masks are required. For more information, call 713-527-0222 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25 - $79.